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We talk with Taia Translations cofounder Matija Kovač about growing from 2 to 30+ team members, pivoting from a translation service business to SaaS, how to prioritize dev resources with shareholder feedback and more!
About Matija Kovač:
Matija Kovač is the co-founder and head of development at Taia Translations, a company that bridges the gap between language barriers with the help of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning.
About Taia Translations:
Taia Translations is a modern translation platform, where we help companies translate their documents, websites, and other content with AI-assisted, human-perfected translations. If advanced neural machine translation is good enough, you can get your files translated, with formatting intact, in just a few seconds. But when you need a professional touch, you can order from a range of services, right inside the app.
Brian Sierakowski: Hey, welcome to the podcast. How are you today?
Matija Kovač: Hi, Brian. Thanks for having me. Great day so far. How about yourself?
Brian Sierakowski: Awesome yeah, so far so good. I always love talking about the weather a little bit at the beginning of a podcast because it’s like certain not to be relevant when everybody’s listening, but it’s been cold recently and it’s warmed up and we had kind of a foggy morning today, which I think is kind of a cool vibe to start the day with, so yeah, I’m in a cool spooky mood today triggered by the weather.
Matija Kovač: Weather! Yeah well, I live close to the Alps in Europe it looks like it’s about to snow again. So we might get some snow through the night.
Brian Sierakowski: Cool all right. Well, when this episode comes out, we’ll have to get an update whether or not it actually snowed.
I’m sure people are dying to know…, why don’t we move over to the topics that people are probably tuning in for and just to get started? Why don’t you tell me, where did your entrepreneurial journey get started?
Matija Kovač: Oh, well I’ve been an entrepreneur for about seven or eight years now, I think, but it originally, actually it started back in the day, back in the nineties, when my father started his first company and I saw how hard he was working.
And I said, well, I think I’m never going to go down that path. It looks like a lot of hard work and, and a lot of sleepless nights to be the man of your own business. But I guess you do the things that you say you won’t do most. So eventually I ended up helping my sister set up her company.
And then later on when I was working in this multinational company I realized that this isn’t something where I see myself in the long term. So I started talking with a bunch of people in my social circle and seeing if there’s anything else out there if it’s just the usual 9-5 go to work, go home and waste your life away or is there something else.
One of my friends was Marko who we already briefly worked together with earlier. And I really liked the way he was approaching his business. I liked the team he had; I liked the way he had his things sorted out. So I called him up and I said, “Hey there, if you ever need someone you want to work with, why don’t you let me know?”
And eventually he came back, and he said, “Well let’s open up a company together. Let’s start a language school.” And I said, “Well, there’s so many language schools out there, why would you want to build another one?” He said, “Look, I’m already running this other business that’s also sort of a school, so I have classrooms. I have all these processes already set up and I could help you with this.”
“And on the other hand, you yourself, you’re good with languages and you’re a professor by education.” So, I thought maybe it’s fun, just like a fun project. “And if you look at how this business is run, nothing has changed in the last 20 years.
Everyone is doing everything the same way they did in the nineties so I think we can do better.” And I said, “Well let’s see if we can.” And it just started with just like a hobby, just a weekend project. I remember one Saturday I was working on this, and my then girlfriend came in and she was like, “What are you working on?”
And then I spent the entire weekend building the first website and so on. And by the end of the next weekend, I decided to quit my job and just go fully into building this project. And that’s where it somehow all started about seven years ago, something like that.
Brian Sierakowski: Wow, so you went from the mindset of, I never want to run my own business and you kind of went down a different path and then it almost feels like the second you had the opportunity, you were like, yeah, I’m all in. Like one weekend and I’m ready to go.
Matija Kovač: Yeah, with literally like two weekends or something like that. And I just got pulled in so much because I saw how much you can… when you can do things your own way, if you do things however you want to do with them. So being the master of your destiny, if you want to call it this way or something, so yeah, it was really intriguing and intoxicating.
Brian Sierakowski: Yeah, it feels fortunate that you had this connection, someone that you knew that you were already interested in working with and feels kind of lucky that the idea that they had was an area that you had professional, you had domain expertise in.
Matija Kovač: Yeah, I’ll be honest. I owe a lot to Marko and especially in these early days, he taught me a lot.
There’s one thing I would give advice to anyone who’s just starting their business. Really, really take a close look at your social circle and work on it. Try to meet as many people as you can, who might be relevant to your idea, or if you don’t even have an idea, try to put people around you, who you know, that you can trust, or at least you feel you can trust and learn from.
Brian Sierakowski: Yeah, that’s interesting. I feel especially over the past 18 months, it’s been really difficult to meet new people. But I totally agree. I feel like my personal observation is I’ve seen like the people who have set out to like earlier in their careers, I guess it’s actually, it varies a lot, but it almost feels to me more like the people who kind of set out to learn and meet people and kind of be helpful to others, got to where they wanted to be a lot more quickly than the people who sort of had their eyes said like, “Well, I want to start a business and I don’t know what it’s going to do or I don’t know who it’s going to serve.” I feel like that’s a little bit of a harder road.
Matija Kovač: Yeah, it definitely is.
Brian Sierakowski: What advice would you give people as they’re trying to build their network or what worked for you as you were trying to meet people and you kind of expand these opportunities
If somebody feels like they don’t have that network around them, what would your advice be to get started on that?
Matija Kovač: Out of the two of us, so Marko my Co-founder at Taia and myself. I think he’s definitely been the one with the way bigger social circle and social skills. So I usually have this joke. I’m the one with the glasses in this tandem. So, I’m good with computers and all that and he’s better with meeting people and expanding social circles.
I don’t think my advice would be very good, but there’s all of these networks and all of this that you can go to and meet people there. And a lot of the people I know I’ve met through some of these occasions, there’s conferences and all this traditional stuff that’s going on in normal times, now during COVID times, it’s definitely harder.
But on the other hand, you have all these social networks these days, especially with LinkedIn. It is extremely powerful as a tool so you can literally narrow down through search and filter people who might be interesting for you to meet with. And if you reach out and if you’re approachable you can definitely expand your social circle this way.
Brian Sierakowski: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I think that it certainly is like a harder time to like the events aren’t, I guess they’re coming back depending on where in the world you are. And so it is definitely more challenging and different, but one of the other things I feel is that sometimes, especially for me and other people I talk to, you know, it’s kind of like the flip side of that coin is if you feel like you don’t have social skills or you’re more introverted and you’re going to feel awkward talking to people, now is like the perfect time because everybody feels awkward. Everybody’s rusty, people haven’t been going to events.
So, if you’re concerned about feeling awkward, going and talking to people, now’s the perfect time to do it. Cause everybody, everybody feels that way.
It’s such a strange time. It’s like you can kind of strike while the iron’s hot and all the wonderful, extroverted people in our lives, haven’t been able to hone their skills. So the introverts can kind of come out and at least hold up their side of the conversation a little bit.
Matija Kovač: Yeah, I was just at this web summit a couple of weeks ago in Portugal and there were about 45,000 people at the conference.
It was huge and you would be amazed to see how excited people were to actually meet with other people live in real time, in the same place. The first day everyone was just giddy from excitement because it was so unnatural after all these months of being locked in your own home. It’s a weird experience.
Brian Sierakowski: Yeah, you no longer need to be the most interesting person in the world. Just being a physical corporeal human being in the same physical space. People are like, yes, this is exactly, this is exactly what I’m looking for.
Matija Kovač: Happy to find a human connection with someone finally.
Brian Sierakowski: Cool, so you mentioned that you were a language professor, is that right? Is that what you did your study on in school?
Matija Kovač: Well, yeah, at university I studied Chinese, but I also speak a couple languages. I come from a very small country in Europe and it’s kind of normal for us to learn languages at a very early age.
So, I started with English obviously, my native language is Slovenian, but then in school I also learned German, Italian, and Slovenians like to go to Croatia, to the seaside so we all speak a bit of Croatian as well. But then at university, I decided to take Chinese as my major and aside from that, I studied some other stuff as well.
I actually have a couple of degrees. One of them is… I’m also a teacher, so I’m very much into teaching. And this is also I guess, my leadership style as a CEO or right now as a CTO, I like to work with my team in a way that I’m more of their mentor than their classical old school director. So, yeah, a bit different, I guess.
Brian Sierakowski: Yeah, that’s interesting. Do you feel like that’s kind of your… just a natural tendency that you have, or is that something that you’ve cultivated to be a little bit more of a coach and less of like a more of top down, you know, traditional director?
Matija Kovač: I think it’s much more natural. Yeah, it’s much more natural to me because I’ve never liked autocracy, you know, like people just tossing you around.
And I think a lot of people in my generation are just not comfortable with it anymore. Back in the fifties or earlier, maybe it was more natural for people to be used to being bossed around. People in this day and age they’re more used to taking, to making their own decisions and just being guided along the way. It’s much more beneficial to everyone.
So, to me, it’s the only leadership style that I can actually do because if I try to be very autocratic, it’s not going to come across as realistic. It’s going to come across as phony and no one’s going to take me seriously. So I just have to avoid that approach and then stick with what I know. So yeah, it’s being a mentor or a coach.
Brian Sierakowski: That’s great! and I think that it certainly makes sense coming from the professor world. I could see that it’s true or not necessarily true cause I feel like I do know I’ve known professors that are very demanding and yell at you for not understanding but I never did very well with those professors.
So, I think that a similar style works in that field too. Well, let me kind of coach you through and understand. Well, I’m not gonna yell at you or make fun of you for not understanding something. I just need to understand why this, that you don’t understand it. And then once we understand that, then we can like, it’s just…
It’s that style of, it’s us against the problem versus me versus you. And like my task is to get you to do the thing at any cost.
Matija Kovač: Yeah and it’s also part of the psychological safety where you try to help people with their problems and instead of just pointing out, “Hey, you have a problem.”
What are you going to do about it? It’s like, well, how can I help you to get across this problem. And even if you fail, even if you don’t understand, it’s okay, we’re in this together, I’m here to help you. What I say a lot of times to people who are new to the company that doesn’t look. Don’t be afraid to ask.
I know all your life, you’ve been told to shut up and just listen and do what you’re told, this isn’t school anymore. You’re not supposed to be quiet, you’re not supposed to shut up. You’re supposed to ask questions. You’re supposed to give ideas and contribute to the whole, whatever it is that we’re building.
And if you’re not you’re actually in the way of everyone else who’s trying to build something better. So what I tell my… I’ll call them staff, but they’re actually, my team, my people. I usually tell them my job is to remove any obstacles in your way, in order for you to be able to do your job and not to tell you what you need to do.
You’re the one who needs to tell me what you’re going to in order to get us where we need to get going right?
Brian Sierakowski: That’s a trend that I’ve heard pretty regular in chatting with people on this podcast of trying to figure out how you can basically get the most out of your team by making sure that they feel comfortable taking on projects and making recommendations and suggestions so that it’s not, if it’s a true top down approach, then you run into the issue of, well, that person whoever’s making that top-down strategy has to be basically perfect.
You got to be sort of all-knowing and you have to really like account for, and you have to be a tremendous planner to understand what’s going to happen at every single step along the way, versus if you can engage the team and then have, you know, make sure people feel empowered that as they’re progressing forward to achieve their goals, which hopefully are aligned with the goals of the company, which is maybe a separate topic.
But if they’re running into walls, they have to find some way to solve those or, or feel empowered to solve those issues so that they can actually be successful because otherwise, if they don’t feel empowered in that way, then they’re just, when you go to review your goals, they’re just going to come back and say, “Yeah, sorry, I couldn’t hit this goal because of this reason.”
And then you’d be like, “Well, why didn’t you just solve that problem?” They’re like, “Oh, well, I didn’t think it was my job or, you know whatever…”
Matija Kovač: Not in my domain or something, yeah, and there’s, there’s two sides of this. On the one hand, it’s what we were just mentioning. Now people need to feel empowered. People need to feel like they’re in control of what they do and that they’re included in the decision-making processes, at least to some extent, of course. But on the other hand, it’s also completely unscalable. If you think that you will be managing everything as let’s say, a CEO or Co-founder or whatever you are, and that everyone’s going to report back to you.
So very early on, you’re going to have to start working on setting up middle management then go into a classic corporation style, which in my opinion is not something that a lot of people in this day and age want to be a part of actually. So I think, especially after COVID, but I think the thing that’s changed the law. Now, if you want to attract talent, like really, really talented people, and let’s not be fooling everyone. If you want to build an exceptional startup team, you’re going to need exceptional people. But if you wanna attract exceptional people, it’s no longer fancy offices and high salaries.
It’s also about how they can be included into whatever they’re building and be a part of the vision that you promote. So, it’s much more complex these days, especially now when it’s so much harder to get good talent, unless especially developers and specialists, specialists people because of the demand on the market.
I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but it’s never been harder to find a good engineer to work on your software problems than it is now. I don’t think it has been in the last 20 or 30 years. So now it’s an exceptional time.
Brian Sierakowski: Yeah, certainly and it’s sort of like when remote wasn’t as common or at least it was common with smaller companies.
I felt like having a remote position was a competitive advantage for startups because you can provide that additional flexibility and it increases your talent pool. So, the really talented people who didn’t want to move into a tech center to work at a big company, you would have an opportunity to work with them.
But yeah, now it kind of feels like, I kind of had this, this feeling like everybody was sort of celebrating the fact that everybody was moving to remote and most excited for remote. And I don’t think we took the moment, the selfish moment to be like, oh, well, if every company in the world, including, you know, all the major tech giants are moving to primarily remote, well now we’re not just competing with the other startups we’re competing with a dynamic of exactly every everybody, the entire…
Matija Kovač: …limited resources.
Brian Sierakowski: …the entire suite, right.
Matija Kovač: Yeah, that’s, that’s actually, I think something that’s happening as well in the market.
Brian Sierakowski: Have you been thinking about competing in that environment? What are you doing to compete with the companies with infinite resources?
Matija Kovač: That’s exactly one of the things that we would need to tackle through, through company culture and values, and then through all these approaches. But again, it’s not something new, it’s something that some companies have been experimenting with for ages. Like even at Google, they’ve had, back like 10 or 15 years ago, even they already had a lot of autonomy with their staff and sometimes it backfired tremendously.
There’s stories and stories of it, it’s a weird time to be able to attract talent but I think somehow, we’re kind of managing it quite well. I really like the team we have currently. And I think we are looking into some really exceptional times ahead of us when we’ll be attracting even better talent, even more people to help us scale this company to its next stage.
So yeah, we’re kind of now in the process of going from sort of a startup phase into a more scale-up phase and that’s definitely a new era for us.
Brian Sierakowski: That’s great! Take us back in time a little bit. As you were transitioning from the kind of day job into the company, it sounds like you right out the gate were responsible for a lot of the technical side of the business. Is that true?
Matija Kovač: Well, yeah, I mean, I’m more of a technical side of the company, as I mentioned. And well the first company I started was actually this language school. And the idea was to build a language school where a part of the class is in-person with a real teacher, but a part of the class is automated and is online so that you don’t have to waste so much time being in class with other people, just doing some silly exercises and waiting for other people to finish, but you can actually do all the exercises on your own, fully automated and well our app was there to help you.
But when you’re learning a new language, you really need to speak with a native speaker, a teacher who can guide you through the pronunciation and everything. And that is still very efficient if it’s in-person. Luckily back in 2014, when we started, we tried it with video lessons, but a lot of our clients just weren’t too excited about remote lessons.
Now it’s entirely different. But while we were building that business, we started selling a lot of language courses to companies in the region. And in all this, a lot of these companies started asking us, well, we like how you do things. We like your team; would you be willing to handle our localization services as well?
So, if you can translate this document or that website or something, and we said, well, yeah, we’ll figure it out. So, we started figuring it out along the way and realized that there’s this gap between what the market has to offer in terms of technology and what the localization services actually are and how the localization services actually look like.
Probably for a lot of people in the States, it’s kind of more difficult to relate to this, but in Europe we have, I think 27 official languages only inside the EU. And then there’s all of these other languages and all of these other countries bordering the EU. So, we really have to translate a lot of stuff a lot of times and ordering translation services a few years ago, even still, but still now it looks like you send an email to an LSP, a language service provider, and they take their dear time to reply back with the quotes.
And then you have to confirm that quote, and then you have to ask them, when is this going to get delivered and so on and so forth. So essentially there’s about 13 emails which are files inside being exchanged just before your project even gets worked on. And your files are stored on computers with all these different freelancers working for these agencies.
And it takes a bunch of manual management and handling for you to get your files translated. And we realized we can build this better. We can make an easy-to-use web platform where you just drag and drop your files, just like you would for Dropbox, or WeTransfer for example, and get these files translated for, or at least get a quote for these files immediately, you know, analyze them automatically gives me back a quote, how much is this going to cost me?
And then give me an option to decide what kind of quality I want, how fast I want to get this delivered. So, we started pitching this idea around, we started building the demo, we got some funding and then we moved full time to working on this company, which we now call “Taia”. So, TAIA as in translation with AI assistance.
And it’s been growing ever since. So now we’re a team of 30, 32, something like that, all over Europe. We have our HQ in London. Some of our team is still in Slovenia where I come from originally. And then some of our team is also in other countries in Europe, like Spain, in Cyprus. And we’re still growing quite fast these days.
So yeah, this was, as I mentioned, I took on the role of CTO in this company, whereas Marko, my Co-founder, took the role of CEO. So, we kind of split the company between the two of us, not the company, but the obligations and the things we need to do. So yeah, it’s been a very exciting journey so far.
Brian Sierakowski: Yeah, that’s great. And you kind of skipped over it but it sounds like you were able to raise funding right in stride as you were rolling it out. What was that experience like?
Matija Kovač: Oh, it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Well, I wouldn’t want to lift hopes to anyone who’s just beginning their startup path.
But when you’re just starting out, it’s really hard to raise funds. If you have nothing to show for it, we weren’t able to build the entire platform in order to show how it’s going to work. And we only had mock-up screenshots then, and then it still didn’t really help us a lot. But one of the major issues was is we were only pitching to local investors in central Europe, which I think was the major mistake, we should have gone to at least the UK, if not the US already in the start, but then when one day I just took some time off and I built the first demo to show how it’s going to actually look like.
And then with that demo, we were able to showcase a bit better and we got our first investor on board, but I think it wasn’t a demo of course that convinced them it was the team in the background. So, they decided to support us as an angel investment with a small ticket for us compared to what we’re aiming at this day, but that helped us to hire full-time developers and start working on an MVP.
So, we went the classic route, idea and concept pitching it around, seeing how people react to it, then building a demo to grace the funding, and then with that funding building an MVP. So, with the minimum viable product, we then went to market, and we saw we’re on the right track. We saw that the market was responding to what we had.
They were willing to use it. We had people signing up and people starting to order projects in the app. We were then able to raise an extension to the angel round and we were able to hire more people and start marketing and selling and built even like revenue already from scratch. So, from August from day one.
So, then we started improving on the platform, of course. And then last year we raised our pre-seed round of 1.2 million euros which was a kind of big moment for us because then we could finally finalize version 1.0 or something like that and revamp most of the UI, rebuild a lot of the backend, just make sure that the product is actually scalable and can go places.
But at the same time revamp our entire marketing and build a solid team that is now able to scale this all the way to the next levels that we’re aiming at. So it wasn’t till now, it wasn’t easy, never is, but it was a lot of fun and a lot of work. So yeah, I enjoy this kind of thing.
Brian Sierakowski: Yeah, it’s always fun to look back and as you’re telling the story, it always feels like such a straight line between point A and point B.
But as you’re going through it, there was a ton of uncertainty and I’m sure as you were going to raise funding, you weren’t sure if that was going to materialize. Even as you were going for the initial customers, you’re like, oh, well, it seems like there’s some interest here, but I’m sure your belief in the idea and the opportunity probably didn’t waiver, but it’s kind of like everything else it’s almost out of your hands.
So, it takes quite a bit of faith to make it through and actually do what you did as far as pitching investors and going through that whole process.
Matija Kovač: Exactly, you really need to believe in what you’re building and that the solution you’re providing the market is actually necessary because a lot of times what I see out there, especially with younger startups is that they are inventing a problem because they have this idea that they came up with and there isn’t really an actual problem there.
So, the first thing you need to do is you have to find a problem that exists in the market and that hasn’t been solved properly yet. So many times, we will see all these startups. Someone once put it well, I don’t remember who it was. The quote was that “You can split startups in two categories. You have the ones that you will be like, oh, well, that’s interesting. And the other ones where you react to them like, haha, oh, well that’s cute because they’re solving something that’s not an actual problem.”
So that’s the first thing. The second thing is, “You’re going to get rejected. You’re going to get rejected a lot. If you’re pitching to investors, you’re going to get rejected by all sorts of reasons, either they don’t understand the product that you’re building, which is very common, especially with the more complex product either you are unable to pitch well.
Your project is, product is just not what anyone will want to support if they have some grain of salt in their brain. A lot of times it’s just that you’re out of their league. Either you want for too much, or your ticket is too small, and they only get in with larger or more developed companies.”
So yeah, get used to being rejected and get used to, listen to the feedback that all these people you’re pitching to give you. Sometimes it might be bad feedback, but a lot of times you can learn, you can adapt your pitch and you can adapt your project to be more suitable for the next investor that you meet.
So, there’s a lot of stuff that needs to be done and it’s a long and windy road usually.
Brian Sierakowski: As I’m listening to that it sort of makes me think of one of the big struggles is that there’s just sort of like infinite permutations, right? It’s just like, well, what does your product do? And who are the people that it’s for?
And what problem are you solving and how do you talk about your, you know, how do you, have you talked about, even for a product like yours, are you trying to pitch this as a faster solution to the traditional or like a higher quality one? Or is it both? Is there a specific scenario in which you’re doing?
I feel like that’s a real challenge and I think you’re right. The only way that you can really gain that sort of insight is you have to both get it out there and talk to people, but you do also have to be receptive and listen to, if you’re pitching, somebody in there saying, yeah, I really don’t think this is a problem.
Maybe you’re not presenting it correctly or maybe they’re not your target customer, or maybe they’re giving you the real heart feedback that what you’re doing is not, you’re not actually solving something that you’re sort of assuming is an issue for companies. I think what you, what you learn as you get on the inside of businesses is that at any point in time, there’s always like a thousand things broken.
So even if you are building a product that is addressing one of those thousand broken things, it doesn’t mean that even if you are solving an actual issue, it doesn’t mean that there’s going to be a lot of motivation from the companies to actually solve that problem, because it’s like, okay, well, what d’you almost have to do, why should I solve this problem instead of these 25 other problems that are already on my to-do list.
So it’s a very challenging stage to go through that you have to, to listen to people. What did you get like similar feedback as you were going through talking to initial customers and investors? Did you have to go through that same process of figuring out which feedback to keep and which feedback to get rid of and what to modify from that?
Matija Kovač: Yeah, of course. It’s one of the hardest things for us till now is to decide which way to steer this boat, which way we want to go, because you get so much feedback, back from the market and from the investors as well. And a lot of times it’s good feedback and it’s quality feedback, but you can’t satisfy everyone.
Someone’s going to say, oh yeah, I’d like this feature in the app. And when you’re a beginner, when you’re just starting up, remember we did this a lot of times we would just drop everything we have planned and just go and build this feature just to satisfy this one customer just in order to get them on board and grow the revenue, which is not necessarily the right approach.
And so, figuring out your product market fit is I think the most challenging part of every company, because even if you have the really good product that solves this cool and good problem, if you’re marketing it to the wrong people, because you are making assumptions of who your target audience is, you are going the wrong way.
So, for example, in our case, a lot of times we were convinced that because a lot of the business in localization is happening with larger enterprise clients, that’s our target client, but, it took us a while to realize that first of all, the decision-making process, the acquisition time with enterprise is just so long.
We would run out of our funding, trying to acquire one of them, let alone a hundred, on the other if you’re doing B2B sales, right? But on the other hand, there’s all of these other companies that are much smaller that don’t have so many localization needs but are much faster to react and are also much more easy to convince because they’re more used to using modern software, modern cloud supported platforms and not some sort of enterprise solutions from back in the day.
So, for us, it took us a while to figure it out but it’s definitely a thing you need to do and try, you just have to go out there. And I wouldn’t say pitch to everyone and try to sell to everyone. I would approach it by trying to make some assumptions and then make hypotheses about this thing.
This sort of company, this sort of decision-maker is going to buy us because of this and that and try then to form an experiment around your assumption about around your hypothesis. Run this experiment for a while, get some data back and then make some decisions according to that data and do it. Do this, rinse and repeat the process with many different industries and decision-makers and whatever it is that you’re aiming at.
And then you’ll probably get some representative data that’s going to help you to decide where to focus your product and how to build it. There’s so many stories out there of companies who are building something and eventually to figure out they need to pivot entirely because they’re getting so much traction from something completely different.
So, I guess always be on the lookout and listen to what the market is saying.
Brian Sierakowski: It’s such a challenging decision, the example that you gave, if you have a customer and that customer has a feature request and the thought process that you were sort of talking through there of like, well, do we satisfy that feature request? Or do you not? Well, that’s like out of scope, it’s another good example of something that’s deceptively challenging to do because what you had said after that is just building all of the features that your customers’ requests is not necessarily the right approach. And then the thing I thought was well, it’s also not necessarily the wrong approach. You can almost play it both ways.
Matija Kovač: Yeah, but your resources are limited. You only have a handful of developers. You only have this and that many months until you run out of runway, and you have to decide where your priorities are.
You can’t just go and try to build everything that people in the market like, but maybe I put this the wrong way. Let’s say, you have a hundred clients and one of your clients comes back and says, “Hey, I really loved this feature.” And instead of just dropping everything and going about building that feature.
Why don’t you ask them more about their feature requests and try to realize what problem they’re trying to solve with that feature first, but then also try and ask some other users who have already in the app, let’s say at least 20 of them, if this is something that they would use on a daily basis and if they would be willing to pay more for your product, if it provides them with this feature and then maybe you’re onto something.
Otherwise, it might just be one person in one company wanting something because they came up with it, but they’re not even going to use it. So, with every improvement that you’re building into the app, always try to figure out, is it something that’s gonna satisfy 80% of our users instead of just 20?
Is it something that’s going to bring more value to our users and make our product or whatever we’re building more valuable to them. And also go through the regular process of first asking your current users and your potential users. Is this something that you want, is this something that you would be willing to pay for?
How much would you be willing to pay for this then? What kind of problem would this solve for you? And just so we’d go through this process of first talking about it and then maybe designing it and showing it to people and asking them again, and then maybe dedicate your developer hours into actually building it.
So, otherwise you’re just throwing money out the window.
Brian Sierakowski: Yeah, for something that nobody is ever going to use.
Matija Kovač: Yeah, sometimes it’s just a win from one client just saying, “Hey, I would love this button here.” Are they ever going to use it actually? Probably not.
Brian Sierakowski: Maybe, maybe not, but yeah, probably, probably not especially if it’s just a button. Yeah, that’s awesome. And I love that, I love that framing that you have. I’m wondering do you have like an example of a feature that you’ve either looked at implementing or decided not to implement based off of that, just to like to wrap some real-world scenario around that, that thought process, because I think it’s really important to drive that mentality home for people, especially if you’re starting a new product or you’re in the early stages of your business.
I totally agree this is like a critical thought process to go through.
Matija Kovač: Yeah, I call this the scientific approach because basically what you do is, you have a hypothesis, you build an experiment, you try to validate your hypothesis and then make decisions depending on that, and then rinse and repeat it. So, it’s the same thing that you would do in a laboratory; but what was a real example from our case. As I mentioned, we started building this app that would help clients to order their translation services and be able to monitor their progress in real time and get their invoices and everything.
So, we’re just trying to simplify the whole process for everyday users who are trying to get something translated and are not necessarily a localization expert and are not necessarily someone who does this on a daily basis, but they need every now and then like once a week or something.
So, we set out and we built that and then when we were selling it, one of our team members came back and he said, “Hey, why are we trying to sell this? Like a lot of the companies we talked to say that they’re building, that they’re translating in-house that they have their marketing assistants or their interns, or sometimes the product manager or regional manager, someone who speaks the local language, who gets the files from their headquarters or whatever and they translate them in-house, and they always tell us that they don’t need our services, whether be it machine translation services or human delivery translation services. Why don’t we just give them the tools that our translators use, and they can translate with those.”
And I’m like, “Well, because then we wouldn’t get to translate, but yeah, we can sell them the software and they can use what we already built for our translators.”
So, what we did is we started just asking everyone that we were selling to. Our sales team was in a lot of meetings and phone calls and no matter what the response was from the potential or existing clients, we always ask them, do they also translate in-house or are they thinking about it and how are they actually doing it?
And we had a list of, I think, about 50 companies who told us that they do it in-house and that they also, I think about 99% of them, weren’t even using any software for that. So, what they usually do, imagine you were a local regional manager for some multinational company and they send you some files and you’re responsible for getting those translated.
So, you have someone in your team just translate it to them on the fly and how they do it is they open the document that they have to translate. They open up a Word file and they copy paste between Google Translate or develop some other machine translation solution. And back into that Word file and then they manually correct the file and we realized what we can do is better.
We can give you a tool that’s going to help you translate much, much faster. Would you be willing to use it? So, we started asking these people, if they would be willing to do that, they said, “Yes.” And then we started showing them some ideas, concepts. And they said, “Yeah, we would”, then we started building a demo.
We gave them the demo for free. We said, “Well, you can use it for a couple of weeks and let us know what you think.” We were doing a lot of customer interviews and onboarding. Walking our users through the app, get them to use it. And, you know, just reminding them that it’s there, even because you know, a lot of people sign up for a trial and then you just don’t end up using it at all.
So, we were pushing them to get into the app and see if they get some value out of it. And in a few week’s time we realized, yeah, well there is this need in the market. There’s all of these translation tools that already exist are too complicated for everyday users. You need to be able to call a localization expert to use them.
Let’s build something that’s much simpler and anyone can use because these days with the help of tools like Google Translate, basically everyone is translating and they’re just correcting the translation however they see fit. So, we gave them the tools that help them do that about three to four times faster because they can drag and drop the file, edit the translation that’s already automatically preset for them. And then just download the file and it keeps the exact formatting. So, it really helps. It’s really helpful. So, we went through this cold classic process of experimenting and asking around before actually committing to building it.
Brian Sierakowski: That’s amazing, that’s a really great example, too, because the nature of that change was pretty fundamental, as someone brought you that idea, or almost sounds like what you’re saying is like, well, the reason why we wouldn’t do this is because we’re a translation company. Haha.
Matija Kovač: Right exactly.
Brian Sierakowski: If we’re not doing the translation, it’s like, what are we? But yeah, I think that’s a really great, intuitive response that you had there. Well, yeah, maybe we’re still a translation company, even if we’re not the ones doing the translation. It’s almost like as long as translations are happening and it’s being managed, then maybe that’s where we’re serving exactly in the way that we should be.
Matija Kovač: Yeah, so the story was we came into the translation business because of the need from the market, our existing clients, language courses were asking us if we want to translate, we started translating. But from the start I always wanted to build a fast company. I was always more curious into building technology that’s going to provide value to people rather than providing services, because it’s just so much more scalable and you can help so many more people than you can with just this agency work.
I’ve always wanted to pivot out of the agency work and into SaaS, but building a SaaS company from scratch can be extremely expensive, especially these days when the market is already saturated with so many existing solutions that you have to be quite far into the development tree to be able to build something that’s brand new. And in order to be that far, you need to be very well funded.
You know, it’s capable of doing this on their own in their own time and no one else has done something like this before you. So, there’s a really high bar and this bar is just increasing, I think, in the complexity of the solutions you need to provide to the market in order to provide it with the value. So, for us, it was a very natural process.
We went through with the low hanging fruit first and then improving on that and then improving on that again until we were finally able to, from the development and sort of pivot the company into more and more a SaaS business, than less of a service industry. And we’re still deeply inside this transition as we speak.
So it’s an ongoing process and it’s pretty complex and it might not even be the right thing. We might be perfectly fine doing with the classical service industry and just live happily ever after. But if you want to build something grand it’s going to leave a lasting effect. You’re going to have to build hard so this is where we’re at.
Brian Sierakowski: It sort of feels like once you started your business predicated on solving a customer need, it’s almost feels, although this might be simplifying it, it almost feels like it’s easier to, as the needs of that market change or as you identify new needs, it’s almost like it’s easier for you to move horizontally and vertically to kind of solve these problems because the only reason why you were doing the first idea is because customers needed it. So if some other customer needs shows up, it’s in the same sort of domain of where you’re already solving. It’s like, well, sure! Why wouldn’t we solve it? Versus like you were mentioning the cute type ideas of someone’s like so dead-set on solving a specific problem in a specific way.
Then it’s going to be really hard for you to look and have your eyes open and taking that feedback compared to somebody who, you know, if your whole mission is just to solve problems for customers, then as new problems come up or as you learn more, I’m sure it actually still is a challenging decision for you to make.
And you do have to go through that process. Like you mentioned of talking to other customers and getting the sales team, you still need to get the feedback, but your initial reaction, because you’re built into the nature of well, let’s solve these problems for these customers is when a new problem came up you’re like, well, we could solve that for the customers too. If there wasn’t that kind of defensiveness of like, well, no, that’s not who we are. And that’s not what we do. That’s not what we’re all about. It’s more well, let’s get some more data. Let’s see. Maybe we can help more customers this way.
Matija Kovač: Exactly, if there’s something it’s always to get more data and make your decisions based on comparable data that’s realistic and well put together because a lot of times people would just make decisions based on one person saying one thing. It’s not necessarily the right thing to do.
So yeah, I’m a huge nerd when it comes to data-driven decisions. Always keep my Excel spreadsheets ready to start figuring out, what is it that we’re actually are facing?
Brian Sierakowski: Yeah, don’t talk to me unless you’re bringing an Excel spreadsheet.
Matija Kovač: Or at least a way how we can gather data for a few weeks and then you know decide on it.
So yeah, this is really important. When looking for new people to join your company, make sure that they are capable of working that out. At least in the basic contract so they can understand what you’re thinking of?
Brian Sierakowski: Let me know if this is kind of outside the realm of companies that you’re working with or the problems that you’re seeing, but I’m curious if you have any insight.
One of the trends I’ve seen is like a lot of SaaS businesses are looking more to localization as their customers are becoming more international. And as they are, realizing that, like we Baremetrics, we have an expansion in Japan and we’re fortunate that we have Japanese-based employees that can actually do the translations themselves.
Although they probably wish they weren’t spending all their time doing translations but we at least have that capability. Is that kind of localization within SaaS? Is that something you have visibility on or, and do you have any sort of advice or feedback for companies that are maybe thinking about expanding into a different region or a different language?
Matija Kovač: Yeah, I mean, it’s exactly what we’re all about. So these days we’re mainly working with SaaS companies, really fast growing young companies or let’s say both Series A or Seed round, something like that, where they usually start thinking about localizing into other languages and why is this our target market these days is because first of all, we’re, text-heavy, we’re a SaaS company at heart.
We understand how they usually operate, and we can help them translate their websites, their platforms, all of their marketing content, all of this other stuff. So, there is so much different content that you need to get across from one language to another, if you’re opening to the localized, in a new market.
So, it’s not just the website, there’s internal documentation, like SOPs and stuff. There’s training videos for your staff, there’s just legal content. There’s so many different things that you need to handle. And traditional companies would usually have localization teams of about, I don’t know, 10 to even 30 or more people whose job it is to manage different vendors, such as language service providers or agencies. And they use all this traditional software that’s usually, local programs into a Windows machine. They need to send files up and down by emails and so on. And it’s really hard for a startup to assemble a team like that and manage the localization process in this way.
So, what we’re building is a platform that anyone in your company can basically use, it just drag and drop their files in, and they get them either translated by a professional, depending on the budget you have, or you just get them machine translated with your existing content and the machine translation engine on top of that, it can learn from your existing content.
Or your team members can come in, just like you said, your team in Japan. And they can use the tools that are very easy to use, but also very, very effective at translating content. And they can get stuff translated and it’s all in the same platform. So, it’s really an all-encompassing simple to use solution that runs in your browser.
And anyone out there can log in and start using it without any training or anything special required. So, this is actually what we’re all about.
Brian Sierakowski: Well, you mentioned as far as also thinking about not just updating the content on the website, but also sort of all the supporting materials.
Is that a mistake that you see companies going into when they’re thinking about localizing. In their minds, they’re only thinking about updating the copy on the marketing site and they’re not being mindful of all the other documents and internal documents and messaging and sales, collateral, everything else that goes into a localization project.
Matija Kovač: Yeah, something like that. A lot of times people wouldn’t even consider localization as a cost until they start asking about it. You know, they don’t even budget for it. And they’re like, oh yeah, we have all this traffic coming from Germany. Let’s just translate our website to German, but then they forget, you need to get their terms and conditions.
You need to get your app, your platform also translated and that’s not easy. This is the process that you need to consider in advance and be prepared for it. So what we try to do is reach out to the SaaS companies to try to inform them of the benefits of localizing, not just translating, but also be aware of cultural differences and all of that.
And then to help them set up a process through which they can then gradually translate and move over into other languages and reap the benefits of that. There’re so many blog posts on our website about how useful it is to actually localize. It’s your fastest way to grow. Once you’ve built a SaaS company that’s successful in one language, your easiest way to get new users and to grow faster horizontally is to expand into other languages because most of the internet does not speak English, not anymore, not since the nineties.
So yeah, things have changed a lot.
Brian Sierakowski: Yeah, it’s been a little bit, yeah that’s certainly the case. What do you think is the minimum bar? So, if we have a company or somebody who’s listening to this podcast and they’re just starting a business. I would probably argue that until you first start getting your first couple of customers, that’s probably too early to localize.
When do you think the right time is to start thinking about localization and do you need to have a, you know, if you’re going to localize into a different area, do you need to have someone who’s a speaker of that language on your team, can you actually outsource that? What have you seen kind of been the effective path to when to start localizing and then what’s the minimum requirements to actually do it successfully.
Matija Kovač: It depends on the company of course, but I would recommend you don’t get into localization. And I know I’m not doing myself a favor here, but don’t try to localize your content before you’re sure that what you’re doing is the right thing. So if you’re steering the early stages of your business, it’s very likely you’re going to have to adapt your website entirely.
Like just revamp it from scratch every couple of weeks just to get the messaging right. But as soon as you’re getting real traction and you’re seeing the market is interested in your product. And the way you’re communicating is actually the right way to get a lot of traffic and conversions and all that we’re all about here in this ecosystem of startups, then it’s definitely the right time to start preparing for localization, if not seriously considering it because with a very low investment from scratch, you can at least get your website ready for localization, just your website. It doesn’t have to be your entire platform and everything.
If it’s just your marketing content, you’re already on a good track, but you can just get it translated, machine translation wise and it’s going to help you with your SEO immediately because SEO is a very long tail long game effort and it makes sense to start doing it early on. Even if it’s low quality, just get it translated. And you’re going to get the traffic and you’re going to get all the ratings up and everything. And once you see a certain language is actually generating some traction, start properly translating things.
So for example, one of our common client types is an e-commerce company. And these have been exploding the last couple of years, of course. With e-commerce what we see a lot is that they would translate their entire list of products and descriptions and everything initially just by machine translation. But for some of the products that they know are like best sellers, they’re going to invest a bit more and have a human in the loop translation as well and this can be either done by your team members or by our professional translators. We don’t really care as long as you’re happy with it right?
If you’re still a small company, you’re probably going to outsource everything because it’s cheaper than having your own team members doing it.
We do it on a daily basis, right? We have hundreds of translators working for us. Some are even full-time in house. Some of them are freelancers all over the world. And I bet here we can do it faster and for less than if you spend the time, most of your local or your company team on doing that, they should focus on building the product and marketing it and supporting the clients, not on translating content.
But what we do like to do is we like to cooperate with these clients. Before the first project, we would go and build a glossary out of their existing content and ask them, “Is this the way you want to translate this? Are these the words that are important to you?” And so on. And then as we go along, we would build the so-called translation memory out of every project that you will translate with us, whether it be by our professional translators or by your in-house team, we’re going to store all that content and help you help the system learn from that content.
So, the next time you come in, it’s going to provide you with a better translation. It really is advantageous to use a platform like this and not to do it just by hand because you’re wasting precious human potential by repeating the same and the same thing all over again. The machine can do it much faster and can assist you with that.
Brian Sierakowski: That’s awesome, what’s going on with your company today? What do you have in front of you, if you have plans that you’re willing to share or kind of like where’s your head at as far as what the next couple of months and years are going to look like for you?
Matija Kovač: Oh, the next couple of months are going to be all about raising the next investment rounds. Sp, we just started knowing last month or two talking to a couple of VCs and investors. We’re aiming on raising the next round of about 3 million Euro and it’s looking quite promising. We have some serious VCs already going through the due diligence process.
So, we’re hopeful, quite optimistic that we’re going to close this round and be able to extend the runway for the show for about 18 or 20 months. And then during this period, we’re going to invest more heavily into our SaaS capabilities. So, we’ll be able to support users with more technical solutions and people at the company, even more into the SaaS industry, but at the same time, it’s quite possible that we will still be providing users with professional services as well because what we’ve seen is that this hybrid is still at least in localization it’s very necessary. So you might think that Google Translate already does a brilliant job or some of these other antique solutions out there, they’re amazing solutions, but you don’t want to trust your, let’s say terms and conditions for Japanese to Google Translate. You might get into some serious legal trouble down the road.
That’s going to cost you way more than just investing a couple 10 bucks and getting that translated professionally. So, it really is something where we can see that translating huge volumes of content is cheaper than it has ever been. Just as I mentioned earlier, for example, product descriptions for building or SEO, that’s a great case, but it’s not. In some cases you’re always going to need, or at least for the next decade or two, you’re still going to need a human in the loop to make sure that your translation is correct. So that they go through what the machine translated is corrected, and they improve on it and they make sure that it’s legally correct and marketing wise correct. So, your Hero section and your Homepage, you’re probably going to want to have a human to translate that and not just the machine.
Brian Sierakowski: Yeah, that totally makes sense. The description on your hundredth most popular item can probably be done by a machine but I certainly agree with your terms and conditions. The specific wording is very important there. And like you said, it’s not an extreme cost so blending the two together makes perfect sense to both get out there quickly.
And I really do appreciate to your thought around from an SEO perspective, getting something out there, even if it’s not perfect, can help you start to almost go back to your strategy of getting that data. And if you machine translate into five different languages and you see, one of them is really starting to pick up in traffic, then that can be your indication that, that might be the area to invest a little bit more and kind of double down there versus spending the time to hand bespoke translate everything and then you’re on the back foot. So that totally makes sense. And also, fits in with your strategy and how you think about running businesses as well.
Matija Kovač: And then once you see you have traction in one market and you start investing into outsource translations for professional needs, like your top 100 products, for example, your terms and conditions, your Hero section on your home pages and so on, you get those translated professionally.
And then when you start generating more and more revenue in that market, you’re probably going to start building a local team there. And once you have that team, they can use the same platform to be able to translate by themselves as well, or at least to review what the other translators were doing, and then use the same ecosystem to progress the company further.
And the best thing is that the more you work and design the system, the more it learns from your existing content, the more it’s able to help you, the faster you get through and the better the results are. So, the less human effort you have to put in. So that’s basically the whole gist of the top platform.
Brian Sierakowski: That’s awesome, well, hopefully anybody who’s listening that has been thinking about localization or has been putting it on the back burner, or kind of doesn’t really know where to start. Hopefully they feel a little bit more motivated to grow their business. Maybe it’s not as big as, and as intimidating as they might think.
Matija Kovač: It shouldn’t be, it’s getting easier and easier, especially with solutions like what we’re building, it’s getting easier to be multinational. You don’t have to be a multinational company` to be international these days.
Brian Sierakowski: Yeah awesome, so, we’ll include all of the important links and getting started. If anybody’s interested in checking TAIA out, we’ll make sure that it’s actually a pretty easy domain, but we’ll make sure that everybody is linked over there.
And hey, thanks so much for your time. This has been really great, and it’s like I got the wheels spinning for me. It’s to support some of our localization efforts. I appreciate you like me also using this time to pick your brain on some of those problems that I’m working on too.
Matija Kovač: Ah! No! I’m happy to, it’s my expertise and I like to talk about this topic as you can see, but if you have any questions, like anyone out there listening to this or yourself, Brian, make sure to reach out. I’m always available on LinkedIn, my email or somewhere, and I’m happy to help. Keep it up, make your SaaS company grow fast.
Brian Sierakowski: Awesome, thanks so much!
Matija Kovač: Cool well, thanks for having me, Brian.